The Athletic

Lakers issues with officiating come to a head after crucial no-call in Boston: ‘We got cheated’

BOSTON — LeBron James sat in front of his locker with his knees wrapped in ice, staring blankly ahead, searching for an answer to a problem that has plagued him for weeks, if not the entire season.

“I don’t understand,” James kept repeating to himself after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 125-121 overtime loss to the Boston Celtics at the TD Garden on Saturday.

For several weeks, James’ frustration with the way he’s being officiated this season has been bubbling. In the seconds after regulation ended against the Celtics, it erupted on one of the game’s biggest regular-season stages: a primetime matchup between the league’s fiercest rivals.

With four seconds remaining, and the game tied at 105, James drove past Malcolm Brogdon and easily got to the rim. As James extended his left arm for a layup, Jayson Tatum rotated over and swiped down, smacking James’ arm and causing him to miss the point-blank attempt as time expired.

To James’ disbelief, there was no whistle.

He immediately stomped around, gesticulating with his left arm to highlight where the contact occurred. James then hopped around in an uncharacteristic display of emotion. As his frustration overwhelmed him, he crumpled to the floor, struggling to contain his anger.

“You saw my reaction,” James said matter-of-factly when asked about his reaction to the no-call.

Patrick Beverley, who prides himself on having his teammates’ backs, took a nearby camera from a baseline photographer and showed the image to the referee, earning a technical foul before overtime even started and igniting a chain of memes.

In a pool report after the game, crew chief Eric Lewis admitted that the referee crew missed the contact from Tatum on James’ layup attempt.

“There was contact,” Lewis said. “At the time, during the game, we did not see a crowd. The crew missed the play.”

Anthony Davis, who also spoke to the media in front of his locker, a few feet away from James, sounded off on the no-call and the overall officiating.

“(Tatum) crowded him,” Davis said. “He crowded him. Clearly. Clearly. It’s bulls—. …It’s unacceptable. And I guarantee nothing is going to happen to the refs. We got cheated tonight, honestly. It’s a blatant foul. …It’s unacceptable, to be honest. The refs were bad. They were bad tonight.”

The locker room scene postgame was tense and distressed. Players cleared out quickly. Every conversation included questioning and criticizing the final possession, as well as wondering why referees can’t be strongly penalized for missing a call that costs a team a game.

Beverley and Russell Westbrook declined to speak to the media postgame.

Even Lakers coach Darvin Ham, who is typically measured with his analysis of officiating, was palpably disappointed as he spoke.

“As much as you try not to put it on the officiating, it’s becoming increasingly difficult,” Ham said.

The Lakers have had several recent losses in which critical crunch-time calls did not go in their favor, including against Dallas, Philadelphia and Sacramento.

In their double-overtime loss to the Mavericks, James was fouled by Christian Wood on a similar play at the end of the first overtime, but the foul wasn’t called.

If those calls had correctly gone in the Lakers’ favor, as well as the final possession against the Celtics, the 23-27 Lakers, who are 13th in the West, would likely be 27-23 and fourth in the conference.

“I watch basketball every single day,” James said. “I watch games every single day. And I don’t see it happening to nobody else. It’s just weird.”

The Celtics (39 free-throw attempts) shot nearly twice as many free throws as the Lakers (20). James attempted only six free throws, nearly half that of Tatum (12) and Jaylen Brown (11).

“The best player on Earth can’t get a call,” Ham said. “It’s amazing.”

James, who finished with 41 points on 15-for-30 shooting, nearly willing the Lakers to victory, said he feels he isn’t officiated the way other stars are.

“It’s challenging,” James said. “I don’t get it. I’m attacking the paint, just as much as any of the guys in this league that’s shooting double-digit free throws a night, and I don’t get it. I don’t understand it.”

Ham hypothesized that the discrepancy is due to James’ style of play, referencing Giannis Antetokounmpo and Shaquille O’Neal as players who were similarly difficult to officiate given their strength, power and physicality.

“He’s a guy that decides to play the right way … plays a strong, physical brand of basketball, and, just because he doesn’t flop or he doesn’t fail or he’s not screaming when he’s shooting the ball, like I see a ton of other players doing, he gets penalized for it,” Ham said. “…Those guys that play physical and really try to focus on finishing plays, sometimes it doesn’t go in their favor. But then you see other guys wimpering on every shot or everything they get bumped … and they are the ones getting the whistles.”

James acknowledged that his visceral reaction was due to emotions that have been brewing throughout the season — and the irritation from the calls seemingly leading directly to losses.

“Nah, it’s been building,” James said. “It’s been building, because you guys seen some of the games we’ve lost this year with late game missed calls. We had an opportunity to literally win the game. I had the second one in the last few weeks for myself: Against Dallas, had an opportunity to win on a foul call. K-Nunn the other day had an opportunity to tie the game (against Sacramento) if the four-point play is called. I do not understand.”

The Lakers still had a chance to win in overtime, but the Celtics raced out to six-point lead within the first minute as the Lakers were clearly still processing what had just happened.

The emotional carryover was ultimately too much for the group to handle, at least in a hostile road environment against the league’s best team.

“You’re still thinking about that,” Davis said. “You’re not even supposed to be in that situation, to be honest. You’re not supposed to be playing overtime.”

The Lakers have already communicated with the league, but with the officiating counting to occur, they’re not sure what the best course of action is moving forward.

“I mean, we have different avenues where you can … I think Monty McCutchen, he’s definitely transparent and there are different mechanisms where we have access to where we can voice our concerns and they give good feedback,” Ham said. “But after the fact, it’s like all you can hope is for it to become more consistent.”

James said he will not be communicating with the league.

“Nah, I don’t get into that,” James said. “Our organization decides they want to do that, it’s cool, but it ain’t gonna change s—.”

The Lakers aren’t strangers to heartbreaking losses. They’ve been one of the league’s worst teams in crunch time this season, losing a dozen or so times in excruciating fashion. That’s what makes Saturday’s loss so difficult to accept. They were right there. They led for much of the game — and they needed this win badly.

Perhaps if the Lakers had a better record, their reaction would’ve been milder to the blown call. But this is the type of loss that can come back to sting the Lakers in April when they’re jockeying for playoff and Play-In positioning.

Los Angeles was a foul call away from potentially beginning their five-game road trip with a statement win. They went toe-to-toe with the best team in the NBA for the second time this season.

But instead, they’re left seeking explanations as to why so many calls continue to go against them in pivotal moments, and waiting for the moment that they finally turn the corner and cement themselves in the postseason picture.

“Like I’ve told you guys, we don’t have room for error,” James said. “And it’s one of the best games we’ve played all year, and for it to fall on somebody else’s – to fall on somebody else’s judgment or non-judgement is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.”

(Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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